One spring evening in 1991, Chholing Wilcox (pronounced Cho-ling) waited in the bar of a San Francisco Hyatt. And waited. And waited some more.
She’d been set up on a blind date with another artist, and now she wondered if he was standing her up ... until she remembered there was another Hyatt a short distance away.
“So I called over there and asked the concierge, ‘Is there somebody wandering around wearing this certain jacket?’ ” Chholing remembered.
In fact, there was just such a somebody pacing the hotel’s bar: Leslie Taha, who was “sweating and looking nervous,” he recalled.
When they finally met (at Leslie’s Hyatt), they ended up talking for hours. Two weeks later, they were married in Reno. “We really, really clicked,” Leslie offered, by way of explanation.
The couple’s rush down the aisle shocked their family and friends. “If I had said I was joining the Air Force and traveling to the moon, that would have been more acceptable,” Chholing joked.
But 28 years later, the Tahas are still pursuing their creative dreams, side by side, from the historic Anoka home they have shared for the past seven years.
In one room, she paints and sews, incorporating traditional Native American imagery in paintings and textiles that have been displayed on the walls of museums, such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and joined the collections of others, including the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
In another room just down the hall, he draws cartoons, which he’s recently collected into a book titled “Off My Meds,” and that have been lauded by humorists from Billy Crystal to the late Charles Schulz.
Though they work in two very different corners of the art world, the Tahas share an understanding of both its challenges and its allure. They say they’ve appreciated having a partner who understands the artist’s lifestyle and mercurial business model — works can be so time-intensive, with no guarantee of being salable — as much as the artist’s impetus to create.
They like to help each other refine their ideas and craft and have shared tips on tools and techniques over the years, as well as many laughs. “We break each other up,” Leslie said. “We have an almost identical sense of humor.”
The artistic drive that forged the couple’s instant bond has also helped make it a long-lasting one.
Chholing started drawing at age 3 and still begins all her paintings the same way. By sketching out each element in the composition — constellations, rock formations, animals from every kingdom — she ensures that the piece is perfectly balanced.
Ideas for new paintings often appear in her mind’s eye: the entire scene, completely finished. “Just like somebody put a slide in my head,” she explained.
From a distance, the bold, graphic shapes and vivid colors that Chholing favors lend her paintings a three-dimensional quality resembling cut-paper collages. Yet up close, the works are rich with fine textural details in feathers, fur or rippling water. Shapes are outlined in tiny dots, evoking traditional Native American beadwork.
Chholing’s imagery often reflects her Cree ancestry, but she also incorporates customs and artistic styles from other tribes, taking care to study the craft and check with culture bearers to ensure that she’s following protocol.
In one maritime scene representing a morality tale, Chholing illustrated several crabs in the fine-grained aesthetic traditional to woodlands Ojibwe of the Great Lakes, and the rest in the ovoid shapes that dominate the indigenous artwork of the Northwest Coast. A canoe in the painting’s center is split in two — one half depicted in Ojibwe birchbark construction, and the other as a dugout log favored by ocean-adjacent tribes.
Chholing started working with textiles when she was in her 40s and decided to do a ceremony which required that she make her own regalia. The first shawl she made — she adorns wool cloth with colorful appliqué and Swarovski crystals — was so striking that when she was hanging it from the deck of her home to photograph it, a friend visiting her neighbors asked to buy it.
Scott Shoemaker, a curator at Indiana’s Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, which owns two of Chholing’s artworks, said that her textiles and paintings are characterized by their balance, having both a bold visual impact and an exquisite execution of details. “But one of the most powerful things about her work is the layers of stories embedded,” he said. “And some of those stories, even though they’re highly specific, they’re also universal things anybody could connect to.”
Many of Chholing’s paintings explore the theme of healing, a subject that has interested her since girlhood, when she saved an orphaned baby bird by feeding it ground-up cornflakes and milk.
Several major health care institutions have commissioned Chholing’s work, including Hennepin County Medical Center and Mayo Clinic (a visit to its Rochester headquarters for a 2010 project gave Chholing the idea that she and Leslie should move to Minnesota from the West Coast). Jill Ahlberg Yohe, a Mia curator who selected one of Chholing’s paintings for display at the museum last year, said the artist’s work is also well-suited for a health clinic setting, describing it as “visual medicine.”
Angela Two Stars, director of All My Relations Arts gallery in Minneapolis, has curated shows featuring Chholing’s work, including a recent exhibition focused on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic (MMIW). “It was a very emotional show, but because of work like Chholing’s, it helped to create a sense of hope around this tragic issue.”
Curators who have worked with Chholing say they admire her thoughtful, meticulous approach to her work, her depth of knowledge, and ability to communicate.
“There are just so many layers to her work,” so many layers of understanding, so many layers of teaching, and so many layers of history,” Ahlberg Yohe said.
Cartooning focuses his mind
In his late teens and early adulthood, Leslie struggled with anxiety and depression, which contributed to his cycling through dozens of jobs until medication and a focus on cartooning improved his condition. “Once I could channel my energies into a creative outlet, that definitely helped,” he said.
Leslie creates single-pane cartoons with a quirky point-of-view, in the vein of Gary Larson’s blockbuster, “The Far Side.”
Some of his cartoons feature iconic characters or events: dinosaurs watching Noah’s Ark depart without them; the Grim Reaper with his brother, the Grim Raker; a detective poring over Humpty Dumpty’s remains shattered into a frying pan, speculating that he’d been pushed.
A few engage in light wordplay: a musician on stage, singing into an enormous “macrophone”; a guy in bed grinding his teeth with a power tool.
Others make social commentary: an obese man testifying that a fast-food company literally funneled burgers and fries down his throat; a dweeby guy who morphs into a troll when he goes online.
After sending his cartoons to various outlets, Leslie was signed by a Canadian syndicate and has had his work published regularly in small newspapers. To make additional money, he also took commissions for cartoon-style paintings based on photographs of people or pets, depicting the subjects in fantastic scenarios — a sorcerer mom working her magic on a cauldron full of her fighting children, for example.
Cartooning isn’t the most lucrative field, so for years Leslie has also worked as a field service technician, repairing machinery that automates various business tasks. Even though Leslie’s cartoons haven’t yet found commercial success, Amazon reviewers have doled out five stars for the “milk-snorting, ribcage-bending, pee-releasing laughs” provided by “Off My Meds.”
Several celebrity humorists also praised Leslie’s cartoons after he mailed them his collections, unsolicited, seeking feedback with self-addressed reply cards.
In the late 1980s, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz penned that Taha had “ … finally made clear for me a few opinions which I have been afraid to voice myself …”
Leslie has never shied away controversy, particularly with an illustrated book called “The Architects of Rap: Poison in Our Culture” that he self-published in 2003, satirizing the negative aspects of hip-hop culture that he says portray African-Americans in a “low kind of way.” (After he sent the book out for feedback, Chholing said she picked up the phone one day to find Ralph Nader on the line, sharing his compliments.)
He’s also created several cartoons about mental illness, and even though some have drawn strident complaints, he says he hopes addressing the subject with humor can reduce its stigma.
“People that have these issues know how to laugh at it, they know that it helps,” he explained. “Sometimes if you take everything so seriously all the time, it makes everything worse.”